8/31: How to live in China without speaking Chinese

There are some languages similar to your own, others that are easy to catch, and then there’s Chinese.

My native language is Spanish, I consider myself a bilingual person and I have a good level of English. Catalan and Italian are my possible third language but I’m not proficient enough in neither of those to say that I’m trilingual. Chinese, that’s another story.

When I attended college I chose a third language, my options where French, German and Chinese. At that precise moment I ignored the last option, when would I need Chinese in my life? Well, seven years later I regret my decision.

After nine months I’m able to say basic things like hello, goodbye, numbers, directions, my address, Mexico, cold, hot, I don’t understand and I don’t have.

How do I communicate with other people? Google Translate (or it’s Chinese version Baidu Trans), pointing stuff, looking for pictures on Google Images (or Bing China) and having friends that speak Chinese.

One of my biggest advantages is that most of the people who are part of my daily life speak fluent Chinese, this is enough for me to solve my problems when I’m with them. When I’m at my own, I need to use one of these tools or give up to what I need.

Using mobile apps has saved my life in many ocassions. I have one app for ordering food, one for buying stuff, one for calling a cab, two for paying stuff (more info). Once you understand how the UI works you can do almost everything without talking to a human. Taking screenshots and using the image function on translators helps you to understand what you are doing.

Banking and important institutions usually have someone who speaks a good level of English, enough to help you go through the most common process, if you need something more complicated, then you will need ask for help. Most of the ATMs at big branches have an option to use the interface in English, so getting your money is easy as well.

Other advantage is that Chinese people are really nice with foreigners (most of them), so they would try to understand you and have a great time laughing at the language barrier but trying their best to help you with what you want. You can even have the luck that someone around speaks English and then he would act as a volunteer translator, it has happened to me twice.

While it was the scariest thing about coming to China, at the end you can survive enough without knowing the language.


This story is part of my 31/31 challenge. Following a friend’s idea I will publish at least one story every day for the next month.

If you see any error please let me know, the idea is to stop over-reviewing my stories before publishing them.

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You can connect with me via Twitter following me at @fernandlicon.

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